May 2010, Interview with Mike Solomon

Mike Solomon, Bolster, New Seah, Panta rhei, Siphon, 2008
 Installation of net, fiberglass, epoxy and tint sculptures at Salomon Contemporary Warehouse

Salomon Contemporary

526 West 26 St - #519
New York, NY

An interview with Mike Solomon  

Sarah Douglas: Tell me about the direction you have gone in with this new series of sculptures.

Mike Solomon: They represent a blending of things from my cultural background -- my ideas about art -- with things that are outside of that.

SD: How did your ideas about art develop?

MS: In the 1970s with Minimalism and Postminimalism -- Hesse, Serra, Benglis, Andre, Flavin, etc... I stuck with that way of working for a long time.

SD: Your father is the late Abstract Expressionist painter Syd Solomon. You later worked as director of the Ossorio Foundation. Does it make sense to say that you have lived in the long shadow of Abstract Expressionism

MS: That's it in a nutshell. I don't know of another person who was more of a designee for a certain generation of artists than I. Growing up in East Hampton in the 60s, I would show James Brooks my notebooks. Bill de Kooning spoke with me about art. I think they felt disenfranchised because Pop art was coming in -- it was well past their moment. I was a young one who was interested.

SD: But you moved to California for your education. What did you find there to help you escape your moorings?

MS: Charles Garabedian, John McCracken, Baldessari -- I didn't know of them in the art world back East.

SD: You began as a painter and began making sculptures relatively recently. How did this transition happen?

MS: I had always dealt with the grid -- morphing it and shifting it. When I began making sculptures -- my first were in the 1990s -- something clicked, something about the physicality of it. I had been doing something latently sculptural in painting, there was always something textural and tactile.

SD: While some of your sculptures are freestanding, others look like paintings that have curled off the wall.

MS: With sculpture, I was actually making space, not just alluding to it, and that was a significant development for me. The grid is a map. By incorporating it in sculpture, I maintained a relationship to the mark, to surface, to drawing and painting.

SD: You've spoken about the importance of process. How did yours develop?

MS: Beginning in 1980, I spent several years as John Chamberlain's assistant, and what impressed me was his ability to find a material that suited his process -- or that somehow was his process. He manipulated metal, and its inherent qualities emphasized his manipulations. He was working with the “viscosity of metal”, was how he put it. It took me forever to discover that kind of relationship with a material. In the late 1990s I began making sculptures out of thin wire mesh, which is very pliable, and that's when I got the notion that I could use it to draw, with the grid I'd been using in painting, in three-dimensional space. Bees wax, which I had been painting with, was also incorporated as a translucent body between the axis of the wire grid.

SD: Three years ago you began working with fiberglass, resin and netting. How did you shift to the new materials?

MS: My son was playing lacrosse in our backyard and I put up a fishing net to protect the glass in my studio. Working with the net, I saw how pliable it was, how its grid distorted based upon the forces that could be applied by tightening or slacking it. The process I use is almost like being a tailor. With net, I develop the shapes I want to see and once found, I solidify them with fiberglass and resin.

SD: Those are organic shapes, they derive from nature -- are we getting closer to the thing which you are blending your cultural background in this new work?

MS: Yes. When I began making sculpture, I began to integrate into it my relationship with nature, specifically with the ocean. I've been a surfer my whole life, and I had always regarded it is something separate from my work. My work is not about surfing. It's about the experience of a person who has spent almost more time in water than on land. I wanted to look at how water behaves, to look at waves as events that happen in water. I didn't want to depict water, necessarily, but to isolate some of its behavior, with the various shapes it assumes and with its other qualities; translucency, reflection, refraction.

Mike Solomon, Panta rhei, 2008
Courtesy of the artist and Salomon Contemporary

SD: Your recent sculptures have moved away from an obvious wave shape, though, and are more subtly evocative.

MS: Originally I made small sculptures that were so wave-like, they were almost surrogates, and had a fetishistic quality. But I couldn't stay in that explicit a mode for very long. I wanted to try more generally to make a sculpture of the ocean, of water. That is very quixotic, of course, since a sculpture is always solid, but I like that contrast, that irony.

Attempting to capture something as incessantly changing as the ocean -- isn't that impulse related to photography?

MS: Yes. The biggest piece in this series, Bolster, is named after the great surf photographer Warren Bolster, who died recently. He was injured countless times because to get great shots he had to be right there in the impact zone, and was either hit by the wave, by the reef, or by surfboards. He would take split lens shots -- half the picture above the water and half below. As a sculptor, I am also working with this referent, this experience that has nothing to do with art and yet is a huge resource of spaces and shapes. When I began to incorporate the repertoire of three dimensional experiences I had as a surfer into sculpture, art opened up for me.

SD: A photographer has only to snap the shutter. How do you capture the ocean in sculptures?

MS: I know the shapes because I have been in them, on them. I have ridden them. My sculptures are snippets, vignettes -- crops of this big holistic thing called the ocean. They map a part of that whole using the grid. Bolster is a section of the face of a wave, inside of which there is a crease, which is like having one wave inside another.

SD: At the same time, isn't there a sense in which, using large waves as inspiration, you are dealing with a natural force that, as surfers must know, can be perilous, vertiginous, even sublime?

MS: I've thought about that in terms of how the sculptures are installed. One of them hangs overhead, creating the impression that you are underwater, looking up at the surface of the ocean. In a sense, I conceived of these pieces as one large installation work. The tint -- their green color along with the one inch grid of the netting in all the works, are the unifying elements. And they are not just parts of a conceptual whole, but can be seen as parts of an actual moment, when all of these various water events might be happening at once.

SD: The idea of the viewer engaging with the work in this way is similar the "theatrical" quality of minimalism. Is this something you thought about?

MS: Absolutely. Changing the context of “normal” space is a priority. Water imagery has broad implications with regards to the changes in the environment and the levels at which pieces are hung imply the various relationships we can have with water. I've been working through ideas from Minimalism, Post minimalism and even Pop (my earlier sculptures can be seen as cliché images of waves. so Pop in that sense). I am trying to understand the art movements that have affected me.

SD: That's interesting -- come to think of it, looking at your work from above one might even see de Kooning's brushstroke.

MS: Yes, I isolate the gesture. Gesture is an event, a swell in the static x and y of the grid. There's also that grey green in his paintings that is similar to the tint I used for these sculptures. For me, this green is the archetypal color of the ocean where I live, and where he lived.

SD: But to return to this idea of the sublime, the unknowable, the larger-than-life. That is present in art history from the romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich to the abstract sublime of Barnett Newman. And it is definitely present in the waves in your work.

MS: It's a strong element in what I do. The grid that measures everything is very mathematical, analytical, reductive, and yet it is in the service of a romantic notion, which is beauty, or grandeur or something epic.

SD: There is something of that in Agnes Martin's work -- the minimalist grid meets the landscape paradigm.

MS: She was the greatest influence on me when I started working with the grid, in the late 70s.

SD: Does environmentalism figure in your work?

MS: There is a general relationship with environmentalism because I care about nature. I believe in being politically active, but for me the role of art is about fulfilling a spiritual need. There are more direct ways to advocate for the environment.

SD: Even in your recent paintings, there was a relationship with water, as there was a layer of beeswax that created the impression that you were gazing into the depths from the shore. Are you still painting?

MS: Yes. I think of those paintings as flat sculpture. And the idea of translucency and layers is important; the California space and light artists, James Turrell, they have all been influential.

SD: Light is what has long attracted artists to the eastern tip of Long Island, where you live. Has it played a role in your work?

MS: Light is the number one element for me. There is a transcendental quality to the atmosphere out there, and if you have caught that bug, you are going to gravitate toward it.

Mike Solomon
Photo credit: Michael Halsband

Conducted in New York, April, 2008


Sarah Douglas

Sarah Douglas has written about art and the art market for ten years. She began as a freelancer, writing exhibition previews for New York Today, then the New York Times' Web site. She went on to run the US bureau of The Art Newspaper for four years, then served as Associate Editor for ArtNews magazine and News Editor for Flash Art magazine, in Milan. Her writing has also appeared the Economist, the National, and other publications. For the past five years she has been Senior Correspondent for the magazines Art+Auction and Modern Painters as well as for, the Web site those two publications share.

Photo credit: Lindsay Pollock

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